BEAUFORT, S.C. -- The "Great Skedaddle" proved the salvation of Beaufort, the jewel in the crown of South Carolina's Low Country. Following the 1861 firing on Fort Sumter in Charleston, which precipitated the Civil War, the entire state was under siege. Beaufort, just 70 miles south of Charleston, was at particular risk.
The city's residents -- believing the war would be over in a month or so -- buried their silver and skedaddled, planning to return and take up their lives when it was all over. Four years later they returned to find their livelihood gone and their beautiful mansions lost to unpaid taxes.
The good news was that the mansions, thanks to the largesse of the Union army (and the fact that the populace had not put up a fight) remained intact and today's visitors can marvel at a town whose center is almost entirely antebellum.
Street after street of these mansions -- adorned with white columns and surrounded by stately oaks dripping with Spanish moss -- elicit "ooohs" and "aaahhs." The best time to truly experience them is during the Fall Festival of Houses & Gardens (in 2020 scheduled for Oct. 23 through 25.)
Tours provide access to three centuries of architectural splendor in an area designated as a National Historic Landmark District. Houses on the 2019 tour included one with a history and one with a heart-warming story.
The Secession House holds an important role in South Carolina history as it was here that the first meeting was held to discuss the state's secession from the Union a decade before the onset of the Civil War.
The Henry McKee-Robert Smalls House was named to honor both McKee, the original owner, and Smalls, the son of one of McKee's house servants. After gaining his freedom, Smalls purchased the house and magnanimously provided a home for his former master's widow until her death.
The festival showcases Beaufort's charms, but any time is a good time to visit this beautiful city, located on Port Royal, one of South Carolina's coastal islands. Some 60% of Beaufort County is water, and the town sits on the Beaufort River, a tidal arm of the Atlantic.
Get a sense of how the water defines the land on one of Captain Dick's river tours aboard the Prince of Tides, while learning about the area's wildlife and ecology.
Spartina, a tall marsh grass that grows prolifically, lines the riverbanks; Oystercatchers, birds with rosy red bills, patrol beds of sun-bleached oyster shells, awaiting their next meal, and the mud flats -- visible at low tide -- are home to an army of fiddler crabs.